Science brought to forefront in 'Fastball' documentary

Bryce Harper smiled and waved his hand across his face dismissively.

“I think scientists are crazy if they think that,” the Washington Nationals slugger said during a scene for the movie “Fastball,” noting that flame-throwing closer Craig Kimbrel's fastball rises every time he throws one.

The laws of physics, of course, state otherwise, as Carnegie Mellon professor of physics Gregg Franklin points out in the documentary film that opens Friday.

No matter what some of the all-time greats tell you — and Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt and Bob Gibson do just that in the film — a pitch traveling upward simply isn't true.

“(A 100-mph fastball) will give the illusion the ball hops upward as it crosses home plate,” Franklin said during the film. “It's not because it actually does — it's the difference between where the batter's brain is telling him the ball is going to be and where it actually is when it crosses home plate.”

Franklin drew a simple diagram on a chalkboard and held a piece of thick chalk as he talked, a real CMU Ph.D. in physics appearing as if he is straight out of central casting for a CMU Ph.D. in physics.

The juxtaposition of the input from him and three other Carnegie Mellon faculty members, along with the thoughts of some of baseball's all-time greats, makes for an illuminating look into one of the sports world's most basic acts.

“The primal battle between a man with a stick and a man with a rock,” is the tagline for “Fastball,” which was produced by Steelers minority owner Thomas Tull.

The movie premieres in Pittsburgh by way of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Harris Theatre, downtown.

Tull serves on the board of trustees for Carnegie Mellon, providing one of the local connections to the film that is narrated by Kevin Costner and has the blessing of Major League Baseball.

Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen is prominently figured in the film, which has scenes shot at PNC Park. Neuroscientists Michael J. Tarr, Nathan Urban and Timothy Verstynen join Franklin as Carnegie Mellon faculty who explain the science behind the pitch.

Legends of the game such as Aaron, Schmidt, Gibson, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Nolan Ryan provide their perspective on the magic and allure — as well as what it's like to throw or hit — the fastball.

Verstynen points out that each synaptic connection in the brain takes roughly 2 milliseconds — and the difference between a 90-mph pitch (450 milliseconds to home plate) and a 100-mph pitch (396 milliseconds to home plate) is immeasurable to the batter.

“That's 25 (more) computations ... to make a decision,” Verstynen said.

“How fast you can react? How fast can you move your eyes?” Tarr, head of CMU's Department of Psychology, rhetorically said in an interview this week. “You're essentially reaching your limits. You can only move it once or twice as it is — and if it's moving much faster, the likelihood of predicting where ball goes decreases that much moreso.”

“Fastball” isn't all science — it delves into the history of the baseball pitch, specifically, the game's all-time hardest throwers.

From Walter Johnson to Bob Feller, to Ryan and current New York Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman, each man who once held the mythical title of “world's hardest thrower” is explored and profiled.

Franklin, using historical reports of past (pre-standardized radar gun) top pitch speeds, concludes through calculations that Ryan (108.5 mph) is the hardest thrower of all-time.

Franklin's research lies in nuclear physics — not the relatively-simple Newtonian physics of baseball.

“The mission of a department like ours is both the generation and dissemination of knowledge,” Franklin said in a phone interview. “I'm a nuclear physicist, so I do particular physics, which is very different than this in terms of actual experiments. But, still, physics is physics, and helping people understand what the fundamental rules are of physics and how it affects our lives is pretty universal.”

“Fastball” brings baseball fans closer to science.


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